Graft watchdog has no eye for clear loopholes
Would you feel obligated if a friend or business partner loaned you an expensive item, say a yacht, a house or luxury watches?
When you could, would you try to return the favour?
Generally speaking, the answers are yes and yes.
Whether during a time of old or new normal, borrowing carries a debt of gratitude.
You may argue that as long as it doesn't involve money, it's technically not a debt.
But the truth is that even if the borrowed items are not corroded or compromised in any way by your temporary use, even if the lender does not charge anything and even if you return the items in time, there is an obligation attached to any kind of borrowing.
The lender may say he already has the items and only wants you to enjoy them. But the minute you accept the favour, you owe that person. You are indebted to him, one way or another.
It's a universal language. Most people know that. Most anti-corruption agencies know that, except perhaps some that wish to look the other way.
Debate over whether acts of borrowing expensive items by high-ranking state officials should be listed as a form of debt and declared to the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) flared up again on the weekend.
This is because the NACC sent a letter to former senator Ruangkrai Leekitwatana who asked it to indict Deputy Prime Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwon for failing to declare 22 luxury watches he had been seen wearing in his mandatory assets declaration statement.
The luxury watches are altogether worth more than 30 million baht. DPM Gen Prawit told the NACC he had borrowed the watches from his close, since deceased friend Patthawat Suksriwong and returned them all.
The NACC in 2018 cleared Gen Prawit of making a false assets declaration. The commission found 20 watches and a warranty for another one that Gen Prawit had been seen wearing at the friend's residence.
The NACC did not find the 22nd watch but assumed that Gen Prawit had also borrowed it from his friend.
The commission resolved by a 5:3 vote that Gen Prawit did not try to hide his assets when he filed the declaration with the NACC on Sept 4, 2014, after taking on the positions of deputy prime minister and defence minister.
What is different about the commission's latest letter reaffirming its decision to exonerate Gen Prawit?
What is notable about the anti-graft commission's letter is the rationale it cited to argue in Gen Prawit's favour.
The NACC said the borrowing of the watches were loans for use, meaning the lender agreed to let the borrower use an article or property without payment over a period of time before returning it presumably in the same condition.
The commission said that while a loan for use is a form of debt, the NACC did not designate it as a kind that must be declared by state officials.
It further clarified that according to an appendix to the assets declaration regulations, a debt only connotes one that is financial in nature, not a loan for use or consumption.
Under the logic, Gen Prawit was therefore not obliged to declare the borrowed watches in his assets declaration.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with the NACC about its definition of debt and the scope of its own anti-graft work, one thing that should be clear is this line of thinking could open up a loophole for corruption.
The assets declaration may not be the perfect tool to catch corrupt officials but it is a good start especially in terms of transparency.
Should the NACC feel content that its assets declaration regulations do not cover loans of any kind other than monetary? Probably not, especially if these loans have to do with expensive items with no contract nor clear date of return.
That is why the commission should have sought to fix the terms of its assets declaration instead of staying put with one that seems inadequate.
Common sense tells us that loans for use that need not be listed in a state official's assets declaration could offer leeway for people who want to seek a favour and those who can return it probably by abusing their authority or the public interest.
If someone loans you a luxury villa to use for free for an extended period of time, wouldn't you feel somewhat indebted to that person? Put another way, why would someone lend you or any state official a luxury villa for free if they wanted nothing back? In most cases, the lenders would want something in return that is harder to secure than simple rent.
The NACC certainly has to be more vigilant on its watch.
Atiya Achakulwisut is a Bangkok Post columnist.